October 4, 2012

Creativity, not conformity

by Martin Bishop, Pharm.D., PGY2 Ambulatory Care Pharmacy Resident, the Johns Hopkins Hospital

Sir Ken Robinson, an author and advisor on educational reform, has worked on educational projects in the United Kingdom since the 1980s.  He considers the traditional strategies and methods of education stifling to the creativity of children and students.1  This lack of creativity can limit the effectiveness of graduates as they progress to their careers.  He argues the hierarchy of subjects within our formal educational systems in most countries favor mathematics, science, and languages.  This emphasis undervalues the humanities, music, or dance.  It makes sense that the modern educational system, which came to being during the rise of industrialism, would favor educational topics that provide jobs in an industrialized society (“Don’t do music, you’re not going to be a musician; don’t do art, you won’t be an artist”1).  But creativity can be defined as more than art, dance, or musical talents.  Creativity in education can be related to the ability to solve problems and think critically by using old and familiar ideas adapted to new situations.2  By not emphasizing and fostering creativity, student learn by memorizing facts and key words to regurgitate them on a cumulative final exam.

According to Sir Robinson, “our education system has mined our minds in the way that we strip-mine the earth: for a particular commodity…and for the future, it won’t serve us.”  It is unfortunate that society values students who become physicians, lawyers, and bankers instead of appreciating a diverse arrangement of professions that suit personal interests and passions.  Moreover, the needs of the future economy of the United States (and the world) may be best met by a community of highly engaged professionals with various skills sets including firefighters, historians, artists (just to name a few).3 Robinson equates the educational system to fast food preparation or an industrial production line where curricula and assessments are standardized.3 The answer to the future of education, according to Robinson, is a personalized curriculum with external support where the student can develop at their own pace and focus on their strengths and deficits.3  There is growing support for the strategy of personalizing or individualizing instruction for students.  One example supported by Bill Gates (of Microsoft) and Eric Schmidt (of Google) is Khan Academy founded by Salman Khan.

An individualized education for each student

A traditional class consists of lectures, then homework, followed by an exam. Based on the results of the exam, the students earn a grade and the class then moves on to another topic or another subject.  If the student earns a 70% or higher, they get to move on to learn other things.  But what about the 30% (or less) of the material that was missed on the exam?  In this model, that missed material (concepts, ideas, facts) are perhaps lost forever.  In his TED presentation, Salman Khan uses an analogy of learning how to ride a bicycle to illustrate this concept.  If you are learning how to ride a bike, you might be able to mount the bike, pedal, turn, and ride in a straight line …  but perhaps you haven’t learned how to stop.  You crash into things or just fall and injure yourself all the time.  At this point, having mastered 70% of what’s expected, you would receive a passing grade and proceed on to unicycle!4  But you haven’t really mastered how to ride a bicycle yet!  I would occasionally ask myself about that lost knowledge during my higher education (“Well, what did I miss?”) and would often be denied the chance to review my exam so that I could learn from my mistakes.  Ideally, students should truly master each topic before moving on.

The vision of Salman Khan’s Khan Academy is to encourage each student to be accountable for his/her own learning.  He encourages student to view recorded lectures (which can be repeated as needed) at home prior to class.5  In this setting, students are allowed to fail without punishment or consequences, until they are able to master a specific task.  When used in conjunction with live classes, the student can access online modules and then engage in problem solving projects with their peers facilitated by an instructor.  In this setting, the instructor is acting as a mentor or coach rather than a lecturer.  For the students who are struggling with a specific task (which is shown graphically and in real-time to both student and instructor), the instructor can focus his/her effort on small cohort of students to maximize efficiency of time and effort.  Additionally, the Khan Academy uses the data (reportedly over 191 million lessons delivered)6 to improve modules for future students.  This software and website promise to revolutionize the way classes are taught.  The Khan Academy approach has already been implemented in classrooms in Los Altos, California.6  While Khan Academy has presentations and modules for primarily aimed at K through 12 student, it could be adapted to very complex topics in higher education including medicine, engineering, or history.  It is worth noting that these strategies do not foster mastery for all students.  Just as some students learn better from visual presentations or modeled behavior, only some students will fully embrace instructional video lectures.

I would aspire to bring some of these ideas and strategies to the education of pharmacy students in my present and future career.  Ideally, an approach including an element of course personalization would more effectively learn concepts.  Although a pharmacy school with a less rigid curriculum (i.e. P1 classes, then P2 classes, etc.) and increased flexibility may be years away, we should work towards this goal by making course materials available for all students in the school before and after enrollment in a course.  Although the classes and exams could still be structured in a traditional manner, at the very least lectures and exercises from the course should be open for anyone to visit or revisit.

1.    Sir Ken Robinson. Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity. TED: Ideas worth spreading. Published February 2006. Accessed September 20, 2012.
2.    Ferrari A, Cachia R, Punie Y. Innovation and creativity in education and training in the EU member states: fostering creative learning and supporting innovative teaching.  Joint Research Centre – Institute for Prospective Technological Studies (IPTS).  Published October 2009.  Accessed October 1, 2012.
3.    Sir Ken Robinson. Bring on the learning revolution! TED: Ideas worth spreading. Published February 2010.  Accessed September 20, 2012.
4.    Salman Khan. Salman Khan: Let’s use video to reinvent education. TED: Ideas worth spreading. Published March 2011.  Accessed September 20, 2012.
5.    CBS News. Khan Academy: School of the future. 60 Minutes. Published September 2, 2012.  Accessed September 20, 2012.
6.  About Khan Academy. Khan Academy. 2012.  Accessed September 22, 2012.

1 comment:

lcsera said...

I find the idea of personalized education very appealing. I'm a bit familiar with Ken Robinson (saw him speak at AACP - fantastic!), but not Salman Khan...so I followed your link and watched him speak about his method of teaching through online videos. The method of teaching watching videos at home and then reviewing the material "in person" reminds me of our distance learning methods (mediasite lectures and related small group activities). Khan thinks this method is more effective than "in person" lectures followed by homework and I think I agree. But maybe we need even more "in person" time built into the curriculum. What if we nixed in person lectures all together and used the newly created time to schedule more small group activities with the instructor as facilitator? It appeals to me as a teacher because I think the interaction associated with this kind of activity is more satisfying than a large lecture. Well written and thought provoking blog, thanks!